Responding to “The Nashville Statement.”
I’m going to apologize in advance, because my sermon is a little bit longer than usual this morning. But there is something on my heart that needs to be shared
First, let’s begin by taking a look at the passage from Romans we read this morning.
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the most challenging books in our scriptures. Not only does Paul engage in complicated and elaborate discourses that reflect both his Greek education and his theological expertise as a Pharisee, but he’s writing to a group of people who live in a time, place and culture that is very different from our own. Add to that the fact that what we have to work with is a translation that requires scholars to work with koine Greek, a language that has not been spoken for many generations, and that requires scholars to sometimes make “educated guesses” when the meaning of a passage seems obscure or confusing.
All of this makes me deeply grateful for the work of scholars and translators who continue to study and search for resources that will help clarify the ancient texts, so that they can be meaningful for us in the 21st century.
Bible scholarship & science
The writings of the Bible are steeped in the experiences of the author and the people to whom they are written, and the physical, and social conditions and events of the day.
That does NOT mean that we can only read the Bible in a meaningful way if we have a vast array of commentaries, Bible dictionaries and scholarly writings to guide us. Devotional reading of the scriptures for the building up of our own relationship with God can open us to hearing God speak to us, to comfort us, to encourage us, to remind us that God loves us.
But it’s also important to understand that biblical texts have a complexity and depth of meaning that require us to look beyond the surface, to recognize that the writer was communicating to a particular people, in a particular culture and society, at a particular time in history, and then to discern how those texts speak to us in our time and our culture.
This idea often causes dismay and fosters fears that this is simply a way to force biblical texts to conform to contemporary ideas.
But we have see how understanding the historical and cultural setting for biblical texts gives them MORE meaning, not less.
It’s helpful to remember that there was a time when the discovery that the moon was a solid body that orbited the earth, rather than just a “light in the night sky” (as it’s described in Genesis!) was seen as heresy; that writings that affirmed that the earth revolved around the sun were banned by the church (By the way, Martin Luther also rejected this new idea as heresy!)
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of more than 900 manuscripts in ancient Judean languages, including Hebrew, discovered between 1946-1956, have given scholars insights into the ancient languages that have changed translations and understandings of biblical texts.
Fresh understandings arise
So, let’s look at two verses from our passage from Romans that are too often misinterpreted and misunderstood.
1st: 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.
Scholars are not sure why the translators of the New Revised Standard Version (the NRSV, the translation we use here) have chosen to add the words “of God” to this verse. The actual Greek says simply “give place for the wrath.” Adding the words “of God” attributes a violence to God that Jesus’ own testimony and witness denies.
“But wait,” you might say, “the verse also says ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Knowing that God has given humanity the right to make choices, it is much more consistent with the God Jesus revealed to understand that God allows sinners to suffer the consequences of their own self-destructive choices, rather than engaging in active acts of punishment.
It’s consistent with Paul’s understanding of a gracious, merciful and forgiving God to understand that he is telling the members of the church to refrain from practicing the violence of vengeance-they have neither the wisdom or the right to judge others.
Instead, Paul urges that enemies are to be shown compassion; when they are hungry, they should be fed; when they are thirsty, given something to drink; “for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Wait a minute… Isn’t that directing us to punish them?
Actually, no, it isn’t. In the cultural setting of the first century, the imagery of heaping burning coals over one’s head is the imagery of repentance. Paul isn’t implying that acts of kindness and compassion will serve as a kind of punishment, but that they may have the effect of turning the hearts of enemies and bring about reconciliation- and that’s a concept that transcends time and place, and resonates powerfully with the teachings and the actions of Jesus.
Over the centuries, people seeking to be faithful to the will of God have come to understand that the writers of scripture shared their insights and inspirations as faithfully as possible within their own framework of language, culture and knowledge of the universe.
Learning to appreciate the framework of the biblical writers helps us to get past differences in time, culture and understanding of the world so that those differences don’t become a barrier to living faithfully as children of God.
We haven’t always done a good job of getting past those differences, and when that has happened, great suffering has been the result; misinterpretations of scripture have led to religious wars, justification for slavery, inquisitions, the holocaust, exclusion of women from leadership roles in the church, and excommunication for scholars whose scientific studies challenged centuries-old beliefs of the church regarding the relationship of the earth and the sun, and the nature of the moon.
Challenging a long-standing tradition
I’m headed in a very specific direction here, and I want to be very clear that I understand how challenging and difficult this will be, and that there are members of this congregation who will not be happy with what I am about to say. But my conscience and my deep belief in who I believe Jesus calls us to be will not allow me to be silent.
This past week, a group who claim to speak on behalf of Christians issued a statement on human sexuality, called “The Nashville Statement,” in response to what they call “an increasingly post-Christian, Western culture that thinks it can change God’s design for humans.”
(Editor’s note: “The Nashville Statement” was issued by the The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical Christian organization promoting a complementarian rather than egalitarian, feminist or patriarchal view of gender issues. Their website, www.cbmw.org , could not be accessed at the time this sermon was posted.)
Their statement utterly rejects all that we have learned about gender identity and targets the LGBTQ community with judgement and condemnation, couched in language that tries – but fails – to hide the hatred and judgmental nature of the document. (It also ignores the fact that while God’s design for humans may not change; it’s highly likely that our understanding of that design will change and grow.
I have learned that, often, the words of others speak with a clarity and truth that resonates with my soul.
So, I want to share the response of two fellow theologians to the so-called “Nashville Statement.” Their words are more eloquent than mine, but they speak my heart.
In response to The Nashville Statement, The Rev. James Martin, a well-known Jesuit priest wrote the following rebuttal, using the statement’s formula of affirmation and denial as the pattern for his response.
- Re #Nashville Statement: I affirm: That God loves all LGBT[Q] people. I deny: That Jesus wants us to insult, judge or further marginalize them.
- I affirm: That all of us are in need of conversion. I deny: That LGBT[Q] people should be in any way singled out as the chief or only sinners.
- I affirm: That when Jesus encountered people on the margins he led with welcome not condemnation. I deny: That Jesus wants any more judging.
- I affirm: That LGBT[Q] people are, by virtue of baptism, full members of the church. I deny: That God wants them to feel that they don’t belong
- I affirm: That LGBT[Q] people have been made to feel like dirt by many churches. I deny: That Jesus wants us to add to their immense suffering.
- I affirm: That LGBT[Q] people are some of the holiest people I know. I deny: That Jesus wants us to judge others, when he clearly forbade it.
- I affirm that the Father loves LGBT[Q] people, the Son calls them and the Holy Spirit guides them. I deny nothing about God’s love for them.
Our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has affirmed our full acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people in our church. We acknowledge that the use of particular scriptures to pass judgement on LGBTQ persons is a misinterpretation, a misuse and an abuse of scripture.
The Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested, co-pastor at Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, N.C., shared the following story on the blog site she and her husband and co-pastor maintain.
It was the last night of Vacation Bible School at the Sweet Fellowship Baptist Church. All week our five year olds rehearsed the story of Pharaoh and Moses to dramatize for their parents. All four boys wanted to be mean ‘ole Pharaoh.
With the church pews filled with family, the performance commenced. Our wee Pharaoh sat on his throne holding his plastic sword. Then little Moses walked up to him with his shepherd’s crook and said, “Pharaoh, stop hurting my people. Let my people go.”
Our Pharaoh wielded his sword in the air and said, “Never, never, never!”
Moses walked away and then returned with the same words. “Pharaoh, stop hurting my people. Let my people go!”
Pharaoh said nothing. I thought he’d forgotten his lines. I scooted toward him and whispered, “Say ‘Never, Never, Never’.”
Nothing. Then our little Pharaoh jumped down from his throne, threw down his sword and said, “I’m tired of being mean. I don’t want to be mean anymore!”
Imagine meanness in the world ending due to fatigue.
Signers of the statement, here is a word to you: Don’t you have something better to do? Feed the hungry? Visit the prisoners? Shelter the homeless from the hurricane? Give the thirsty some clean drinking water? Stop mad men from starting a nuclear war? If you are afraid of the world changing too fast or becoming too complex for you, then say, “I’m afraid.” Then be assured that God is with you in this changing world. But don’t use your own selective Bible verses to hurt beloved people of God. We’re tired of your meanness. God is too.
Based on past experience, I fully expect that there are members of this congregation who will be angry with me over this sermon.
But I hope that, instead of nurturing your anger, you will come and talk to me, and be open to the possibility that the pastor that God has called to be in your midst may just be very willing to hear your fears and concerns, and may even have wisdom for you to consider.
I’m tired of meanness, I’m tired of scripture being misused as a weapon, and I’m tired of people missing out on the amazing love God has revealed in Jesus.
I hope you are, too.